1. Grand Canyon
2. New Mexico St.
3. Utah Valley
4. Cal St. Bakersfield
7. UT-Rio Grande Valley
8. Chicago St.
All Conference Awards
POY: Joshua Braun, G/F, R Jr., Grand Canyon
Coach of the Year: Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Randolph, G, R Jr., Utah Valley
Freshman of the Year: Oscar Frayer, Grand Canyon
1. Grand Canyon
Key Returners: Dewayne Russell, Joshua Braun, Keonta Vernon, Matt Jackson
Key Losses: Ryan Majerle, Grandy Glaze, De’Andre Davis
Key Newcomers: Darion Clark, Oscar Frayer, Kenzo Nudo
Fun fact: Grand Canyon University is 200 miles from the actual Grand Canyon. Seems like a misnomer! It’s a damn shame the Antelopes are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament this year (final year of D-I transition), because this is a potent roster. Coach Thunder Dan Majerle has done a great job of bringing talent from all kinds of directions to Phoenix, whether it be via transfer, junior college, or incoming freshmen, and this year’s squad will blend all those avenues into a league title contender.
The premier talents are in the backcourt, which features Dewayne Russell at the point and Joshua Braun on the wing. Russell’s quickness keys the Antelopes’ occasional pressure schemes defensively, and his passing and ability to get in the lane sets the table nicely on offense as well. Braun is a pure scorer - he can fill it up from all three levels, and he excels at drawing contact and getting free points at the line. The ‘Lopes play an inside-out style offensively, using their high-energy big men to suck in defenses and then attacking close-outs when the ball is kicked out, a scheme that fits their stars’ talents quite well.
Though Grandy Glaze graduates, the mold of the big men will be extremely similar this year. Keonta Vernon returns as an undersized rebounding force, and USC grad transfer Darion Clark should slide perfectly into Glaze’s role as a beastly glass-eater and superb finisher inside. Matt Jackson provides a stretch four option to play alongside Vernon or Clark when Majerle wants more space for Russell and Braun to slash into, and Kerwin Smith is back after redshirting last year - he started 25 games in 2014-15.
Two freshmen will immediately become dangerous in the spread-floor scheme - Kenzo Nudo and Oscar Frayer. Nudo redshirted last year, but he should fill the gunner role vacated by Ryan Majerle’s graduation alongside Gerard Martin. Martin is the incumbent other starting wing, the epitome of a low-usage 3-and-D guy. Frayer, on the other hand, is almost an unfair addition to the ‘Lopes - after receiving interest from Arizona and initially committing to Cal, he picked GCU, and WAC coaches should be dreading facing him the next four years. He might already be the best athlete in the conference, an insane leaper and effortless dunker, and his developing three-point stroke has the potential to be deadly as well. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks his way into the starting lineup.
Defensively, Majerle will extend pressure at times, but not always to force turnovers - he wants to eat into the shot clock, disrupt the offense’s flow and rhythm, and force tough isolation situations against his athletic perimeter players. That sort of helps mitigate the lack of rim protection - those undersized post playerse aren’t bothering opposing shooters that much at the rim. With the stable of defenders Majerle has at his disposal and the way they clean the glass, the Antelopes should be a top-2 or top-3 defense in the league. I think the offense will be excellent, so if the defense is good too, GCU absolutely could win the WAC (and maybe even stun Louisville or San Diego State at GCU Arena early in the year).
2. New Mexico St.
Key Returners: Ian Baker, Matt Taylor, Jalyn Pennie, Jonathan Wilkins, Tanveer Bhullar
Key Losses: Pascal Siakam
Key Newcomers: Reggie Todd, Jermaine Haley
Postseason Projection: NIT
It feels like a new era in Las Cruces, as Marvin Menzies - who built the Aggies’ program into a WAC powerhouse over the years - has moved on to try and pick up the scattered pieces of UNLV’s cringeworthy offseason. In an effort to keep the good times rolling, the administration hired his top assistant, Paul Weir, to take over, which helped keep the roster together and should allow for solid continuity for the team.
Under Menzies, the Aggies thrived by out-sizing opponents - they played very deliberately, letting their height and athleticism overwhelm opponents on the defensive end and on the glass. With so much size behind them, the perimeter players were able to play very aggressively on the perimeter and completely take away the three-point line, forcing opponents into the forest of arms in the paint.
That may not be the case this year, though, as Weir has talked at length this offseason about speeding up the Aggies attack and gearing the offense more towards the skilled perimeter players he possesses, most notably Ian Baker, a likely all-conference player. Baker is a good shooter and satisfactory distributor, and his passing may be helped by the switch to a more aggressive approach. Likewise, wings Matt Taylor (a health question mark due to offseason hip surgery), Jalyn Pennie, Sidy Ndir (former Texas A&M recruit), and Braxton Huggins should all find the new scheme very appealing, as it will open up more transition opportunities and should also get them open shots. The old Aggie squads basically eschewed the three-pointer, but I expect that to change this year - now the shooters have to hit the shots when given to them.The main concern for me with the increase in pace is turnovers - the guards were very loose with the ball last year even in a controlled tempo, so that could be an even more glaring weakness as they turn up the pace this year.
Menzies often played with the Indian Giant brothers, Sim and Tanveer Bhullar, at the five over the past few years, but Sim is long gone and Tanveer may struggle to play in the team’s new faster pace. During intervals of the game where they want to slow the tempo down a bit more, Bhullar will still be a force due simply to his sheer size, but his minutes may be limited. Let’s all hope for a Purdue/New Mexico State matchup at some point so that we can see Bhullar and Isaac Haas collide like meteors in the paint. Jonathan Wilkins is the big man more suited to that style with his mobility, and he’ll probably play quite a few minutes at the five this year. NMSU also has Eli Chuha, an enigmatic talent who, if he figures things out, would be a matchup nightmare at either forward position due to his size and skill.
The gap between NMSU and the rest of the WAC has been shrinking, and Menzies leaving may be the wave that finally erodes the Aggies’ rock-solid position at the top of the standings. There’s still a very good roster here, though, so if Weir’s tweaks to the style work, perhaps the dominance will continue yet again (I’m betting against it).
3. Utah Valley
Key Returners: Ivory Young, Hayden Schenk, Zach Nelson
Key Losses: Dayon Goodman, Jaden Jackson, Marcel Davis, Konnor Frey
Key Newcomers: Brandon Randolph, Isaac Neilson, Jordan Poydras, Wyatt Lowell
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Utah Valley is definitely an “I’m taking crazy pills” team for me, as KenPom and everyone else in the world thinks they’re going to suck mightily. That argument is based around what they lose (from a bad team), while I’m far more focused on what they add - which is a considerable amount of talent.
The first key piece is Zach Nelson, arguably the Wolverines’ best player two years ago. He missed last year with an injury, but he returns to full health this year, and he should be a strong presence at either frontcourt position with his inside-out offensive game and decent shot-blocking. The defense will really be improved by the addition of Isaac Neilson from BYU, a mobile 6’10 post man who can rebound, block shots, and finish inside. He should be a force against WAC competition.
Three other gigantic additions are on the perimeter, with Xavier transfer Brandon Randolph, JUCO transfer Conner Toolson, and DII transfer Jordan Poydras all arriving to provide major scoring options. As good as Nelson is up front, I would wager that the Wolverines’ leading scorer is in this group - I’ll bet on Toolson, who was the MVP of the NJCAA Tournament last year (his squad won the title). Randolph should be an elite PG in the WAC - a former top-100 recruit who got passed over by Edmond Sumner at X, he’ll be too strong and quick for defenders to handle. Poydras filled it up at St. Cloud State, and like Derrick White at Colorado, should be just fine despite the increase in competition.
There should also be plenty of depth here, with Telly Davenport and Andrew Bastien both healthy in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively, and Hayden Schenk and Ivory Young both have some starting experience. Young in particular should thrive in a complementary role with the shooters and scorers around him - he’s an effective floor spacer (37% from deep) and a solid defender.
The influx of perimeter talent is perfect for Mark Pope’s system - he’s a student of Rick Pitino and Dave Rose, meaning UVU is going to run, run, run and shoot the shit out of the ball. To that end, a pipeline has begun to form from BYU - Neilson is from there, Toolson’s older brother, Jake, is sitting out this year as a transfer, as is Cory Calvert, also from BYU. The program will only continue to get better with all the talent infusion coming.
The Wolverines aren’t getting love in most projections, but I’m all about them this year. I think they have the talent to push towards the top of the conference this year - it’s just a matter of whether Pope can get them all to buy into his system and have them firing on all cylinders. We shall see!
4. Cal St. Bakersfield
Key Returners: Dedrick Basile, Brent Wrapp, Jaylin Airington, Damiyne Durham
Key Losses: Kevin Mays, Aly Ahmed
Key Newcomers: Fallou Ndoye, Bradley Christian, Taze Moore
Postseason Projection: CIT/Vegas 16
Shake-and-Bakersfield surprised many last year by climbing to the top of the WAC KenPom rankings last year, riding a star-studded frontcourt and shockingly effective backcourt play to a Tournament bid before losing (but covering!) to Buddy Buckets and friends. With the graduation of stalwarts Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays, the plan of attack offensively may need to shift, but the backcourt returns, giving hope for a second straight bid.
Dedrick Basile is the leading returning scorer, a menace defensively and one of the most efficient shooters in the country from all spots on the floor. He struggled with foul trouble towards the end of the year, finishing with three or more in five of the last six games. The Roadrunners will need him on the floor to succeed this year, but I don’t think he’ll be their best player - that would be Damiyne Durham, a light-it-up redshirt sophomore that is simply better than the guy guarding him every night in the WAC. His percentages weren’t great last year, but he’s a pure shooter - he should break out in a big way this year.
Brent Wrapp gives coach Rod Barnes a two-point guard system (which we absolutely adore here at 3MW), and Justin Pride is another option off the bench. Those two plus Basile all had assist rates 23% (very good), which helps make the halfcourt offense very effective. The Roadrunners don’t actually run the road at all, playing at the 219th-fastest tempo in the country, and the biggest reason last year was the aforementioned dominant frontcourt. Barnes has never really played fast, so I don’t expect that to change this year, despite being more guard-oriented. Jaylin Airington and Matt Smith are both bigger wings (not undersized posts, like Mays was), meaning newcomers will need to pick up the slack.
Fallou Ndoye is eligible mid-season after transferring from Mississippi State, and his size and athletic ability should get him in the lineup right away. In the meantime, look for JUCO transfers Moataz Aly and James Suber to get the majority of minutes up front. None of them are the offensive weapons that Mays and Ahmed were, though, so Barnes will definitely be banking on the backcourt to pick up the offensive production.
Playing slow contributes to Barnes’s defensive strategy - limiting transition opportunities and making you earn points in the halfcourt. Wrapp, Durham, and Basile will make opponents’ lives hell with their perimeter pressure, but without Mays and Ahmed, the Roadrunners’ already-iffy defensive rebounding might really be in trouble. My concern with Bakersfield is that they won’t adapt their offensive attack to their personnel. I also think the top 3 in the league is just slightly better, so I think they take a step back this year.
Key Returners: Martez Harrison, LaVell Boyd, Kyle Steward, Dashawn King
Key Losses: Shayok Shayok, Darius Austin
Key Newcomers: Xavier Bishop, Duane Clark, Isaiah Ross
Postseason Projection: CIT/Vegas 16
I got suckered into believing in the ‘Roos last year, based mostly on the brilliance of little bowling ball Martez Harrison and the healthy status of Shayok Shayok. Harrison was very good and Shayok was indeed healthy, but neither quite achieved my lofty expectations for them, and UMKC stumbled to a 4-10 finish in league play. This year, everyone but Shayok and Darius Austin returns (he’s off to the SWAC), and with a veteran, guard-oriented team, perhaps coach Kareem Richardson’s team can rise up to challenge the top teams in the league.
The attack starts with the ball in Harrison’s hands on the perimeter, using his thick 5’11 frame and impressive quickness to bombard the lane with drives and draw contact, finishing third in the conference in free throw rate and shooting 108 in 14 games. He’s also an adept passer, a talent that LaVell Boyd fed off of as a wing shooter. That complementary duo should key the offense, along with a possible contribution from diminutive but dynamic freshman Xavier Bishop. You can’t teach quick, and Bishop has it. Dashawn King, likely the third starter in the backcourt, is a major menace defensively, and between him and Harrison, Richardson should be able to dial up more ball pressure this year (especially with added backcourt depth).
Two options at the four spot point in different directions for the offense. I prefer Kyle Steward, an absolutely lights-out three-point shooter who can space the floor and is serviceable enough in other areas (rebounding). Broderick Newbill is the other option, more of a dynamic athlete and defender who would attack slower bigs off the dribble from the perimeter. Richardson’s choice there probably depends if he prefers offense (Steward) or defense (Newbill) - and maybe that will depend on the matchup.
Two Saint Louis products round out the frontcourt - senior Darnell Tillman, a wide-body who could be more effective in more minutes. He’s an elite offensive rebounder and has nice touch around the rim. Speaking of nice touch, Duane Clark is an intriguing option. He’s not super mobile, but I watched the CBC product play against a front line of Jayson Tatum (Duke) and Will Gladson (Princeton) and came away impressed (Iowa-bound Tyler Cook sat that game due to injury). He uses his body extremely well and is an excellent finisher, and I think he’ll be very effective in limited minutes (more if he proves he's in shape for it).
Richardson has the guards to challenge the top of the league’s elite, but the turnover-centric defense will need to force more turnovers, which should come with depth. If he figures things out on that end, this will be too low of a prediction, which I’m fine with - come on ‘Roos!
Key Returners: Brendan Westendorf, Manroop Clair, William Powell, Emmanuel Chibuogwu
Key Losses: Jack Crook, Jadon Cohee
Key Newcomers: Morgan Means
Postseason Projection: None
Seattle is a slight drop-off below the top 5, in my opinion, but they’re also several steps ahead of the two teams below them. Coach Cameron Dollar employs a 3-2 zone nearly all the time, a scheme that constantly leaves corner threes open and has a very soft free throw line area. In spite of that, the Redhawks played solid defense, avoiding fouling while still forcing some turnovers. Dollar often sends his team out in a three-quarter court 1-2-2 zone that’s meant more to disturb an opponent’s rhythm than to force steals right away.
A big reason that zone works so well is the perimeter length Dollar is able to throw out. Point guard Brendan Westendorf is a rangy 6’5 ballhawk who wreaks havoc at the top of the 3-2, and Manroop Clair and William Powell aren’t small on the wing either. So despite giving up one of the highest shares of threes in the country, opponents shot a poor percentage on them, constantly bothered by the long arms scrambling around the perimeter.
On the inside of the zone, although Jack Crook graduates, half-man/half-mountain Aaron Menzies returns. At 7’3, 260 pounds, Menzies simply eats space; while he’s not a huge shot-blocker (he’s okay), he dominates the glass on both ends and disturbs opposing shooters simply by being there. The long perimeter defenders become even more dangerous when they know they have a stout line of defense at the rim behind them. The zone should help keep him out of foul trouble as well. He’ll be helped inside by Manny Chibuogwu, another defensive menace, and redshirt freshman Matej Kavas, more of a swing forward who can stretch the floor (missed last year with an ACL tear).
The problem for the Redhawks, though, is the offensive end. Dollar’s offenses feature solid ball movement and they hammer the offensive glass (Menzies will feast), but they struggled mightily with turnovers, finishing 349th of 351 teams in turnover rate. Westendorf and Clair both shot the ball very well from the outside, and sophomore Malik Montoya could be due for a massive breakout if he can stay healthy, as he posted easily the team’s highest O-rating (in 11 games). Sophomore Jake Spurgeon should break out as a shooter as well, and he has the length to be a solid wing in the 3-2.
The unconventional defense should be enough to keep Seattle competitive, and they return a lot of talent from the 7-7 finish last year. However, the rest of the league returns or adds plenty of talent as well, so the Redhawks face an uphill battle to improve upon that performance this year.
7. UT-Rio Grande Valley
Key Returners: Antonio Green, Dan Kimasa
Key Losses: Shaq Hines, JJ Thompson, Dakota Slaughter
Key Newcomers: Lew Stallworth, Dinero Mercurius, Mike Hoffman, Adrean Johnson
Postseason Projection: Vacationing down in Mexico
We here at three-man-weave.com have had a lot of in-house debates over whether Lonny Kruger is a good caoch or not (he largely is), and UT-Rio Grande Valley is betting on that. New coach Lew Hill has been by Kruger’s side for 12 years, dating back to 2004 at UNLV. Hill will bring Kruger’s philosophy to the Texas/Mexico border, but it remains to be seen whether his tenure will be impacted by Donald Trump’s potential wall.
Kruger/Hill run a very perimeter-based offense, as evidenced by the insane season-long shooting barrage that Oklahoma unleashed last year. The Vaqueros don’t have that kind of shooting talent on the team, but UTEP transfer Lew Stallworth should be a very good lead guard, a strong football player who can get into the lane against WAC defenders. Two other transfers, Dinero Mercurius and Mike Hoffman, could start alongside him, even though they were little-used role players on their previous college stops. Nick Dixon, a former JUCO D2 All-American, could be the X-factor in the perimeter attack.
The keys to the offense, though, will be two returnees. Antonio Green will probably be the team’s best shooter, a 37% three-point guy last year who should continue to blossom as a sophomore in this league. He’ll see a lot of ball screen action, usually with solid post man Dan Kimasa setting the screen - Kimasa should be an effective option diving to the rim, and he can score one-on-one inside at times if given the time and space.
The defensive end should be where Hill makes a greater impact. Kruger teams are known for walling off the paint and forcing opponents into contested perimeter jumpers. If he can get the roster to buy into that scheme, the transfers are athletic and quick enough to body up against their opponents. Kimasa is an okay rim protector (though not on the level of a Khadeem Lattin), so Kimasa may end up playing the four next to Adrean Johnson, a 6’9 shot-blocker. His presence will really help the guards defend with more confidence on the perimeter.
The Vaqueros have some nice transfers, a new coach with a strong pedigree
8. Chicago St.
Key Returners: Trayvon Palmer, Joshua Batson, Fred Sims Jr., Clemmye Owens
Key Losses: Elliott Cole, Quron Davis, Kieran Woods, Jawad Adekoya
Key Newcomers: Glen Burns, Juwan Savage, Deionte Simmons
Postseason Projection: Chicago is fun in the spring!
Chicago State being in the Western Athletic Conference would make sense if it was 1800, before Thomas Jefferson ran negotiation circles around the French and made the Louisiana Purchase. UMKC in the WAC doesn’t make any sense themselves, and Chicago State is 509 miles northeast of there. Chicago is 2,042 miles from Bakersfield, CA and 2,074 miles from Seattle, WA - how the hell does this make sense?!
The generically-named Cougars are two time zones from most of their opponents, and they’re two tiers away competitively as well. They beat one (1) Division I team (shout out to Western Illinois) and went 0-14 in the league last year, with only two of those games being decided by less than ten points. YIKES.
Coach Tracy Dildy faces a nearly impossible task, as anytime his players break through and play well, they seem to transfer to a better program. That’s why Fred Sims, Jr. returning is such a huge deal. He wasn’t a star as a freshman, but he has a great deal of upside as a midrange scorer. Fellow sophomore guards Delundre Dixon and Anthony Eaves both return as well, and with redshirt junior Clemmye Owens, the makings of a promising backcourt exist. Returning so many guards is huge for Dildy, as he greatly desires to play a sped up style augmented by constant defensive pressure. Owens and Eaves showed some ability in that role last year, and the additions of Brian Greene (a transfer from FGCU) and Glen Burns (from junior college) increase that depth even more. Joshua Batson was nearly invisible offensively, but he’s a decent leader and fits into the scheme well.
Dildy does his best to mix up the pressure, showing a variety of zone trap looks to confuse opponents. He also needs versatile bigs to play that way, and Trayvon Palmer is the best of that bunch. Palmer played high school hoops in my suburban Wisconsin league at Brown Deer (home of Steve Novak), and his athleticism is tough to deal with at the four. Jordan Madrid-Andrews and Deionte Simmons both seem to have the mobility to play in the scheme as well, although the former struggled with foul trouble in limited action last year. Dildy’s bunch led the country in bench minutes last year, so plenty of players will get run.
The Cougars can speed you up, but unfortunately, their offense isn’t scary at all. They turn it over a ton and cannot shoot whatsoever, and though there are a lot of newcomers, there’s just not a ton of talent (nor an efficient system) in place to succeed here. The Cougars should really spend their time trying to get into the Summit League or Ohio Valley - playing more local games might even help recruiting and player retention.